Dangerous Thoughts, chapter 2 - 2 + 3
Chreeb wasn’t his real name, but it was his name in the avian language. Deka had long wished he could pronounce his name. It was one thing to hear and understand it, but another to make the sounds himself.
Though the birdlike people on this planet had more in common with him, he gravitated to the alien perspective of the fish. A life he could not understand. An existence he could not share. Relian raptors could not swim, so the water was an endless source of fascination for Deka. Most species evolved their way out of the water long before achieving sentience. Deka was proud to have a personal friendship with one member of one species that had not.
Their perspective on life, and on the lives of those living above the water, was amazing to take in. Being inside a tree that magnified their voices into something an air-breather could hear made the relationship more than just a mere conversation, but an experience.
In years past, when Deka visited this world, he and Chreeb would spend entire days just conversing, each sharing experiences the other could only imagine. The effort to put them into some kind of context the other could understand sharpened both of their minds.
Deka talked about them now, hoping for some kind of reaction. He explained how it felt to stand over a lava flow. He explained the sensations the body experiences while running on dry land. He told stories of when he and Kylac were young. He explained his time with Sonjaa, how they met, how sex felt, watching her lay eggs, the rush of primal emotions he felt while watching them hatch. It was a life Chreeb could only imagine.
Deka reminded Chreeb of the stories about undersea life he had told Deka. Exploring caves deep underwater. Touching the bottom of oceans on other worlds, where the pressure was so great the water congealed into warm ice. He remembered stories about watching trees sprout. The trees on this world began their lives at the bottom of the ocean. The seedlings shot a tiny vine up to the surface to collect light, and the vine grew into a trunk that could support an entire ecosystem. The fish had only heard about the abundant life in the canopies of these trees, so Deka had to explain it in their terms, and doing so had been a delightful exercise.
So many conversations. So much Deka had experienced because of Chreeb. No other water-dweller had ever been able to put into words what life under the water was like as well as he did.
Deka’s monologues to the unconscious fish went on for more than two days. He barely slept. He felt if he took his eyes off Chreeb for too long, he would miss something important.
Kylac joined him from time to time, but since having sex inside one of these trees was considered unclean, he did not remain there long. For the first few days, Kylac could barely walk anywhere without finding a partner. He was making up for lost opportunity on many other worlds.
Kylac identified with the avians better than the fish. Flight was something he could not experience, so he spent as much time with them as possible. Kylac was sure the feeling of fur was something of a novelty to them, which is why they liked the canines of Rel so much.
Kylac enjoyed seeing the avian hunting practices. Generations ago, when they discovered the largest fish in the water were as intelligent as they were, the birds abandoned hunting them and began protecting the intelligent life on their planet. It was only when they began to understand what the fish were saying that they realized every action the birds took impacted life in the water. Now the birds did absolutely nothing that affected the water in a negative way, and they made sure offworlders did the same.
The birds hunted the large insects and small mammals that lived in the trees. They kept certain canopies isolated so these animals could thrive and be harvested later. They also maintained ways to spawning regions of non-intelligent fish and eels.
They carried Kylac to the trees of insects and mammals to make ways there. The insects were as large as his head, but harmless, and the mammals were wary of visitors from generations of harvesting, but once they accepted Kylac as one of their own, they came near him. Their hands were permanently formed for gripping branches. They had no fur, but their skin was green, which reflected a lot of light to ward off predators. Some of the avians still had trouble catching them.
There were hundreds of trees reserved just for these creatures. Chreeb had maintained all the portals to these isolated canopies so everyone across the planet had access to them at all times. With Chreeb unconscious, the avians had to fly for days to reach them. The fish also had to migrate to find food, now that the portals linking different parts of the ocean were also gone. With the portals gone, life had once again become little more than a perpetual search for food.
Kylac opened a few ways across the planet. He didn’t have a lot of time, and since he was also calculating a way to Selta, it was much more difficult to concentrate. Fortunately, creating a portal linking two parts of the same planet did not take too much effort. He created five of them, but he still could not make a perfect sphere. The way the portals wobbled and pulsed made some birds afraid to use them, and Kylac had no confidence he could maintain them indefinitely. He had maintained dozens of ways between worlds for years at a time without a second thought. Now he could barely keep five open, and several times a day he felt like thrashing and screaming until a few avians approached him and helped him relax.
Kylac deliberately kept the calculations to Selta just short of completion. He was ready by the second day, but every time he climbed down to meet Deka after returning from a hunting tree, Deka did not seem ready. The raptor still spoke to Chreeb, and Kylac noticed more urgency in Deka’s voice each day. His scent contained more adrenaline. Then, on the fifth day, Deka smelled of grief.
After a quick preening, Kylac joined his raptor in the water. Deka lay draped over the fish, his mouth very close to where Chreeb’s earhole would be if the fish had one.
“Please wake up... I can feel you breathing. Can you even hear me?”
Kylac sloshed through the water. He pressed his hand to the back of Deka’s neck.
“Deka. It has been five days.”
“I’m losing the portals. I can’t keep them open for long. We need to find someone who can. We need to know.”
Deka slowly rose from the fish’s body and stood, never taking his eyes off Chreeb. “I still hope you’re wrong.”
They walked out of the water, up the ramp, and emerged into the bright green light. Several birds, both male and female, turned and observed Kylac. The fox could smell they wanted to mount him, but noticed he was with his raptor and must have concluded they were doing something important, so they held back.
The birds took to the air, picked up the Relians, and carried them down to the tree trunk where hundreds of portals should have been. They set the two down on the polished surface, and Kylac ran between two canals to the spot where Rel’s portal used to be. Deka stood behind Kylac. The fox crouched, staring straight ahead.
Equations, variables, always changing, always moving. Everything was moving, and learning how to move with everything was the most important part. Kylac felt his mind moving with the planets and the galaxies. It became predictable. So predictable there were no light years between anything.
He perceived the universe as it was, not a vast fabric, but a set of points all interconnected. An atom on one side of the universe could affect an atom on the other side. Kylac sensed this, and he made such a connection between two points in the universe. He opened it wider. Wider. It formed a three-dimensional hole in spacetime with everything on the other side projected across the surface. It wavered. Kylac tried to hold it straight, but he still could not focus. He felt like an apprentice again.
Various felines with rippling muscles and saber teeth were visible through the portal. They stood on all fours, tails waving behind them. Several smaller canine-like creatures, also quadrupedal, stood among them.
Kylac didn’t try to force perfection. He stood and walked straight through but did not let the calculations go, and the portal remained open.
He emerged on the very spot where the old portal to Rel had been. Its sudden reappearance had drawn a crowd of Selts and Zjr.
“A Relian!” shouted one of the felines.
“Sere told us something happened to Rel! Is everyone all right?”
Kylac raised his voice to be heard over them. “The Ixcyians need help! Their Archeon is unconscious! We need to know why!”
There were no fewer than twenty Selt volunteers in earshot. Kylac selected one of the felines, named Rrana, and led him through the portal. They crossed a few million light years in one step and were instantly back on Ixcy’s wooden hub.
The birds carried everyone to the tree, and as they descended the ramp, Deka and Kylac explained what happened. Rrana and Kylac received a preening. Deka submitted to it, as it had been a while since he bathed. Then they entered the water. It was too high for Rrana to walk, so he swam to the fish. When he arrived, Kylac and Deka held him up from underneath so he wouldn’t have to try staying afloat. He placed a padded paw on Chreeb’s head. Everyone waited. He felt multiple places along the fish’s head. Then used both paws, which made Deka nervous.
“I feel activity in the first brain, but nothing in the second.”
Deka’s tail fell. Kylac’s ears folded back. Nobody moved.
“I’m sorry,” Rrana said. “Chreeb is dead.”
The air in the tree was empty. Deka released the feline, forcing Kylac to hold him up by himself.
The canine led Rrana to the ramp, and they ascended together. They left, leaving Deka, the fish, and the birds in attendance to grieve for the loss of their Archeon. The tree trunk captured their cries and carried them into the ocean. Deka’s in particular could be heard around the entire planet.
The way closed behind them, and for the first time since he had begun life as an Archeon, Kylac felt relieved to close a way. It had only been open a few dozen breaths, and the whole time he had felt it pulling away from him. This had not happened since he was an apprentice, and it convinced Kylac that something was wrong with him. If what happened to Rel was enough to kill an Archeon, it must have had a greater effect on him than he thought. He hoped the Selts knew something about it.
He and Deka walked across the hub area side by side. Deka’s head was down. Kylac held a hand on the back of the raptor’s neck.
“I’m so sorry.”
“We could have lost more... What if the disaster killed more Archeons? How many other worlds are isolated? And Chreeb... I wish we didn’t have to leave Ixcy like that.”
Kylac sighed. “Saali will take care of them until they can find a new Archeon.”
“I know she will, but what about everyone else?”
Deka and Kylac walked on a path in the grass worn down by centuries of visitors. It formed a similar path system found on the other worlds, with each branch ending at a small clearing where a portal would have rested. Now these clearings stood empty save for a few ways linking different regions of Selta.
Deka and Kylac had just left one of Selta’s Archeons on the ocean world. She was eager to help, but as with every other Archeon they had met since the disaster, she could not connect worlds yet. Saali would keep the ways to the hunting grounds open, both above water and below, and lead the search for an Archeon on Ixcy.
Selta was an oceanless world of grasslands and sparse trees. It orbited a white star, which was itself trapped in an orbit around a red giant. Objects on this world all had a red shadow facing the other direction.
Sabre-toothed felines padded about on all fours. Among them were canines, the Zjr. Deka and Kylac were the two tallest people in sight, easily twice the height. As they walked between the felines and canines, Kylac pondered that if not for his planet’s environment, the canine species on Rel might have been remained quadrupeds. Instead, the fox’s legs had become elongated but remained digitigrade, which allowed him to function both upright and on all fours.
They approached the place where the crowd had gathered, gently pushing through. The Selts and the Zjr smelled them coming, gave off scents of reverence, and made way for them. They heard voices in one language. Kylac and Deka had already switched from the duel-language culture of Ixcy to the single language shared by both sentient species on Selta.
“Their story matches the lack of adrenaline in the blood.”
“It doesn’t explain the polish of the bones. I tasted nothing on them. No stress or weakness of the molecules.”
“The bones were not broken.”
“The pattern of the injuries is not straight, but skewed lines leading up and out. Each person was facing the same way, running toward the portal to Selta. They were ripped apart from behind.”
Deka and Kylac reached the center of conversation. Nine bodies were here, all Relians of both species. Bone had been sheared from their bodies, organs and flesh with them. Various felines milled about in here, walking to and from the bodies. The story Kylac and Deka had told gave them new information to work with now.
Saali had told them that the Selts had been occupied since the disaster with trying to revive them. It had been over three hundred years since the death of a sentient creature occurred on Selta, and it had sent the entire world into a panic, with Selts and Zjr migrating to the hub to try to save their lives.
The Selts and Zjr had gathered as much information as possible. By now everyone knew how the victims’ blood, bile, lymph, urine, and feces tasted, how much brain activity was present upon arrival, and how it had faded over time.
For the first time in their culture’s history, the Selts were dumbfounded as to the cause of death. Massive organ failure and blood loss were obvious, but what caused such injuries? What caused the injuries to be in clean lines through the body? The injuries looked as if straight, square beams had come from the sky at a fifty-degree incline, penetrated the bodies to random depths, and then pulled bones and organs and flesh out with them.
The raptor and the fox walked among the bodies, among the Selts and Zjr still examining them. The bodies had the same injuries, but some of the beams had penetrated in different places. Some Relians were missing pieces of their skulls, leaving the brain exposed, squared off where a piece was missing. Others only penetrated the chest and limbs, leaving the head undamaged.
“No taste of burning, tearing, or fragmenting along the edges,” said one Selt.
“Body fluids tasted normal,” said another. “Whatever did this left no trace, not even energy.”
“It was a planet-wide disaster that killed these people. We should consider what events could do this.”
“And now an Archeon is dead,” said one of the Zjr. “Living in the body but dead in the mind. What could cause that?”
Hundreds of felines and canines, all gathered around nine bodies. Saali had told Deka and Kylac the people of Selta had been so traumatized by death on their world they were still trying to revive them even as the bodies had begun to decay. Only Kylac’s arrival brought them out of their panic, and they switched from saving their lives to determining cause of death. Deka and Kylac sat down and listened.
The two species switched from medical possibility to planetary disasters. Rogue black hole or stellar corpse wandering too close to Rel. Supernova remnants. Dense spacetime.
A rogue black hole would not have destroyed a planet so quickly, no matter how large. A stellar corpse, even a large one, would not have chosen parts of people to tear away; the entire body would have been pulled off the world. There had never been a supernova in the vicinity of Rel, and it would not have done this.
They discussed other planetary disasters, such as volcanoes, or a dying star, but nothing matched. Nothing could destroy a world the size of Rel in mere breaths, leaving wounds like these on the victims. It seemed deliberate. Created. Not a disaster.
The deliberation continued into the night. Everyone could see in the dark, so it was no issue. The Selts and Zjr were so involved in the debate nobody paused to eat or drink.
The Selts were not a herd species, but when it came to things like this they acted as one. It was actually the Zjr that had lived together in large groups in more primitive times.
The Zjr were the only ones who could hunt the wildlife, and the Selts, once scavengers of those kills, had gradually inserted themselves as the alphas of each pack in order to benefit from the kills they made.
But disease had ravaged the Zjr and threatened to wipe them out entirely. Evolution favored the Selts who could heal their Zjr so the canines could keep hunting the impossibly fast prey on this world.
This codependence pushed their minds higher and higher until they achieved consciousness. Today, the Selts were the only thing keeping the Zjr from dying, and the Zjr were the only ones who could catch the prey on this planet.
Finally, someone noticed the two living Relians among them. Instantly everyone closed in on them, and Deka and Kylac reclined on their backs in the grass. The Selts placed their paws all over them. Tongues licked Deka’s scales and Kylac’s fur. A few claws pierced their skin, and felines tasted their blood. Others tasted their urine, still others felt their skulls with both paws. Several felines had their paws on Kylac’s skull at the same time, pressing him into the ground.
And then, a sweet smell. The Relians were ready for it.
They awoke together and sat up in the grass. Numerous Selts and Zjr noticed they were awake and rushed to meet them. More paws on the skull. More light pricks, tasting blood.
Several felines touched Kylac in ten places at once. The canine was instantly out of his sheath and ejaculating. Thirty felines tasted it and announced the analysis to those who could not.
Kylac turned his head to Deka. They had touched Deka in exactly the right places to make him release as well, and they presented the analysis to the others in attendance. Word traveled fast how the Relians had recovered.
Kylac noticed some of his fur was missing, covered instead in a jelly made from some kind of plant mixed with saliva. He knew it well. He had been ready for it, but it still boggled his mind to think that not too long ago, the felines had taken his body apart, examined it, tasted the various fluids, removed anomalies, and then put him back together.
This was the post-recovery exam. They knew Relian anatomy so well they could make Deka and Kylac urinate just by touching them in the right place. They knew the nerves to stimulate in the right sequence and time to make them climax instantly. They even knew the exact sequence of touches and sounds to make for their bodies to secrete more insulin, or growth hormone, or testosterone, or estrogen.
The Selts knew how every species worked. Thanks to their endeavor to keep the Zjr alive, their senses of taste, smell, and touch were so acute they could diagnose any ailment, and if treatment meant taking the body apart, cleaning it out, and reassembling it, it was easy for them.
“You are fit to move again,” said one of the Selts.
Kylac sat up. Deka rolled to his stomach and raised his neck. They were sore, but felt better than ever. Deka’s scales were uneven in several places around his body. They had opened him up across his abdomen and even opened his skull. Kylac’s fur was patchy in the same places, which meant they had been just as thorough with him.
“We cleaned your bodies of impurities,” said the feline in front of them, female, likely not the same feline who operated on them. No one Selt would have done it; everyone would have taken part.
Deka found his voice first. “What happened to us? Why can’t we make perfect portals?”
“Why are they unstable?” Kylac finished.
“You are only the second and third Archeons we have examined since the disaster. Your bodies held many toxins while prioritizing other systems, suggesting you have been in fight-or-flight this whole time. Other than that, your bodies were healthy. Your brains, however, showed activity similar to Sere’s. The entire brain is involved in creating portals, so your entire brain was scarred. Neurons showed slow response time, and your brains are rerouting around the slowest neurons until they heal. That’s why you two, and Sere, can’t create stable portals or hold them open for very long. But your minds are scarred in a different way compared to Sere. We believe this difference explains why you have managed to make spheres to other worlds, but Sere cannot. We don’t know why.”
“Will we heal?” Kylac asked. “Will we make stable ways again?”
“Sere is beginning to reach beyond the world again, and he could not even attempt it a few days ago. We believe you will recover eventually, but we can’t be sure of anything without knowing what caused this. Unlike the fish on Ixcy, you had more neurons to absorb the shock of Rel’s portals closing suddenly. Or rather... We wonder if they really closed.”
“What do you mean?” Deka said.
“The bodies of the victims we examined had chunks extracted from them randomly. Think of that happening to the portals. They did not just close. Something reached out and snatched them away, and in doing so tried to take some of your conscious minds as well.”
Kylac and Deka faced one another. Then they turned to the Selt before them.
“What could have caused that?” Deka said.
“We don’t know, but we have identified the people most at risk from death because of it. Sere is working on making ways to those worlds, but he was traumatized heavily. It may be some time before he can make a stable way to another world again.”
Deka rolled to his feet and stood. “Where is Sere?” He held a hand down, and Kylac took it and pulled himself up.
“He’s at the hub.”
“Thank you. Tell everyone we’re grateful for what you’ve done.”
She licked her nose, the gesture for “you’re welcome,” and rejoined the Selts and Zjr still debating around the bodies.
The disaster had disrupted life here. Normally the felines and canines would be in their groups all over the planet, harvesting plants, creating medicines, and learning as much as they could about the contacted universe. The Selts would regularly examine the Zjr, correcting even the most minor defects of the body.
Now everyone was waiting for the portals to come back, waiting to help anyone who needed it. What they did for Deka and Kylac was rarely done for offworlders, as they were much too busy with the Zjr. The Selts would likely make many exceptions over the coming years, gathering as much information about the disaster’s effects on the body as possible so they could be ready for it next time, and hopefully prevent the deaths that had occurred on their world.
Kylac and Deka gently parted the crowd. Selts were examining Zjr, feeling their heads, listening to their hearts and abdomens. The Selts were experts at catching disease at the first symptom, and any sign of disease or weakness was corrected immediately.
One Zjr was asleep on the grass and cut open. Three Selts were licking his insides, tasting for the source of what was threatening to make him sick. They found the infection, pulled it out, and then began sealing the wound with saliva and plant gel.
In the distant past, when the Zjr and Selts had reached intelligence, the Selts stopped merely using them to keep themselves fed. They sought to understand the canines that hunted for them. With understanding came mutual trust, and now the Selts kept the Zjr alive because they cared for the Zjr. The canines no longer hunted prey because they had to, but because they adored the Selts. That was when they discovered portal physics, and they used the portals to eliminate the need to migrate with the herds.
Natural selection had been cruel, but it yielded a population of felines who could taste or smell any ailment in a body through its fluids. They knew how the nerves were networked, and their paws were sensitive enough to detect activity in those nerves. The Selts and the Zjr lived for hundreds of years. Death among them was so rare that their word for death applied only to prey and offworlders.
Deka and Kylac would trust their lives to any Selt. They were all healers by birth, and they knew the anatomy of every contacted species. It was rude to expect medical treatment from them, as their talents were pretty much only for the Zjr, but whenever a new species joined the contacted universe, the Selts were among the first to take their bodies apart and learn everything about them.
Deka and Kylac saw Sere sitting in front of an empty clearing off the path. They knew that posture, that of an apprentice in the last stages of calculating a new portal through spacetime, though Sere was not an apprentice. The raptor and the fox approached quietly and stood behind him, Sere’s head only as high as their chests. They waited a few moments.
A point over the clearing spread wider. It became the size of a Selt, and then spacetime pushed back in and closed it. Sere growled at himself and lay down, head between his paws.
Deka lay on his stomach beside him. Kylac sat by Sere’s other side. He was tempted to lie right up against him, but he remembered these were not pack creatures.
“I can’t make a way,” Sere said. “Every time I try to go offworld, the equations pull away from me.”
“Did you hear the diagnosis?” Deka said.
“I did. It confirmed their diagnosis of me. The portals didn’t close. They were taken somewhere else, and they pulled part of us with them. I will need more time before I can contact other planets.” His voice wavered. “So much death... Too much. We can’t stop it.”
The Selts considered death natural only on other worlds, and for other species. When it touched their world, it was unnatural. Their instinct to save the Zjr sometimes pushed them to extreme panic trying to prevent death from touching anyone. The Selts often had to remind themselves that they could not save everyone. Sere was going through this right now.
Deka and Kylac lay with Sere, facing the empty clearing where a perfect sphere should be. The hub was so quiet. The entire civilization had paused, waiting to know if anyone else needed help. They suspected it was too late, but they were still ready.
“You are so fortunate to be able to make ways offworld,” Sere said at last. “You two may be the only ones who can. Please go to Lesa. Make sure their Bellows Archeon is all right.”
“Is that one of the species most in danger?” said Deka.
“Yes. Five species are vulnerable, including the fish on Ixcy, but the Bellows are at the most risk.”
Deka and Kylac glanced at each other. They agreed. The gas giant would be their next destination.
Sere rolled over to his back, paws in the air. “Kylac...”
The fox caught a whiff of his scent, crawled on top of Sere, and mounted him, happy to help him through the trauma. Deka lay down and calculated where the gas giant would be. He looked forward to seeing the Wings and Bellows again.
Deka fell asleep as Kylac and Sere moaned and panted while the daytime stars set.
Deka dreaded what might have happened to Lesa in the wake of the disaster.
Sample from Dangerous Thoughts, published by KTM Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-7322824-0-7. © 2018 by James L. Steele. All rights reserved.
KDP version also available